Welcome back to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is progressing week by week.
Most NCAA teams are officially done with their regular seasons, and that means we get to evaluate the league’s various Canadiens prospects, give them a grade on the season, and talk a bit about what’s next for each of them.
Due to the sheer amount of prospects in this league (10 to be exact), I thought it’d be more digestible to split the content between divisions, which would also allow for more in-depth work in each segment. We’ll start with the three prospects currently developing in the Hockey East division: defencemen Jordan Harris and Jayden Struble, as well as left-winger Luke Tuch.
Next week, we’ll grade the Habs’ two prospects from the NCHC division as well as Sean Farrell, the only prospect in the Ivy League. After that, we’ll move on to the Big Ten’s three prospects as well as Arvid Henrikson from the CCHA.
Jordan Harris, LD — Northeastern University
A small preamble to his grade, just to put into context his season to date: Harris recently earned the title of Hockey East’s top defensive defenceman, an award previously won by players such as Justin Braun, Brian Dumoulin, Josh Manson, and many more NHL blue-liners. He also made the division’s First-Team All-Star lineup, along with his teammates Aidan McDonough and Devon Levi, who helped their team to a Beanpot final appearance.
Season grade: B+
Despite what seems like an underwhelming tally of 19 points in 36 games, especially since he only managed to match his season total from last year in almost twice the amount of games, Harris was simply the most hermetic defenceman on his team.
Whether off the rush or in his zone, the left-handed blue-liner’s active stick, fluid four-way skating, and intelligent approach allowed him to be a major part of Northeastern’s stifling defence, as the team allowed a division-leading 1.7 goals against per game on average.
Harris was usually the first man out on the power play, the first one out on the penalty kill, and was always present in end-of-game scenarios. Players’ ice-time isn’t recorded by any NCAA database, but he must have been playing in excess of 24 minutes a game based on my viewings of him.
This is a clip from last season, but it shows what Harris does exceptionally well with the puck, especially on the power play: his ability to man the blue line, use his fluid skating to drag out opponents, and generally act as a rover to find soft ice. On top of that, his shot’s velocity and accuracy don’t blow you away, but he does just enough to get the puck through screens and into the blue paint for tips.
On the defensive side, it’s safe to say that Harris has earned his award. Although he’s not the most physical, his stick is always in the way, and he has the smarts to anticipate plays and break them off with consistency. His neutral-zone angling and his net-front box-outs are strengths that should grow with experience against bigger, stronger, faster players at the professional level.
Harris should very well earn himself an NHL contract after his senior year comes to an end; the question of whether that contract will be in the Habs’ books is still in the air, but with the connections the team has added to Northeastern’s program (both of Kent Hughes’s sons, and one of Martin St. Louis’s, play for the Huskies), the odds are higher than they were under Marc Bergevin and Dominique Ducharme’s tenure.
"Discussions with Jordan Harris, his reps and his family continue. We spoke before the All-Star break and I spoke with him again yesterday. It's our intention to sign him and I feel confident we can."--Kent Hughes— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) February 16, 2022
Harris’s ceiling at the moment is that of a number four defenceman, due to a more simple game which relies upon solid fundamentals rather than game-breaking skill and physicality, but his floor is very high for those same reasons. If he spends a half-year in the AHL, shows the consistent ability to break lines with his passes, and grows his physical game against the grinders in the minors, he could push himself into guaranteed top-four contention. Otherwise, he’d do a good job on an NHL third pair as he stands.
Individual skill categories ratings:
Puck retrievals/receptions: B+
Off-puck play: B+
Jayden Struble, LD — Northeastern University
Season grade: B
Just like in Harris’s case, Struble’s underwhelming stat line (three goals, 10 assists in 31 games) hides an interesting profile of skills. The difference is that, other than their tremendous skating and transitional play, the two Northeastern defenders are almost polar opposites in terms of their playing styles. While Harris’s game relies on intelligent, simple plays while lacking in physical attributes and high-end skill, Struble’s physicality and skill set are extremely promising, while he struggles with simplifying his game on both sides of the ice.
When Struble’s opponents head down his flank, they know what’s coming. The 6’0”, 200-pound blue-liner has taken a liking to throwing bone-crushing hits, and his technique leaves little to be desired. He centres his weight very well, and is strong enough to throw players off-balance at arm’s length. Along the boards, his body-positioning and core strength make him more likely to separate opponents from the puck.
When the puck is loose, the challenge for Struble is to retrieve it in a way that allows him to gain the middle, but he is efficient at underhandling the puck once he has it under control and finding secondary or tertiary passing lanes that ensure positive possession for his team. He rarely delegates his problems through passing; he solves them. Struble also excels at drawing in forwards with his positioning and shielding his way out of trouble.
He is entirely comfortable taking the ice given to him, using his skating and stickhandling to break through checks and go end-to-end. His confidence on the puck, his trust in his abilities and the tools he has to match, make him a promising player with the proven ability to improve upon his weaknesses.
The main knock on Struble’s game is his lack of composure at times. Although his patience is evident on the puck, it seemed non-existent on occasions without it. He put himself in multiple situations to get penalized unnecessarily this year, and will sometimes leap out of his team’s structure to throw a hit or commit to a threat without ensuring that it’s the right play to make. He can also forget to use his stick at times, relying mostly on his larger frame and physical disposition to knock opponents off the puck.
I think Struble’s ceiling is higher than Harris’s, with the ability to top out as a number 2-3 defenceman if everything falls into place for him. His game is still raw, however, and his floor could see him never make the NHL. He should spend another year in the NCAA, and the Habs are likely keen on giving him all the time he needs to develop into something great. Defenders can take a long time to hit their stride, and with Struble not turning 21 years old until September, patience is something that both he and the organization need to display in order to see him succeed.
Individual skill categories ratings:
Puck retrievals/receptions: C+
Off-puck play: C+
Luke Tuch, LW — Boston University
Season grade: C-
I honestly expected better from Tuch in his sophomore year with BU. After putting up 11 points in 16 games last season as a freshman, he finished this season with 10 points, six goals and four assists, in 25 games for the Terriers. This places him 12th on the team in overall scoring, with three defenders and eight forwards ahead of him on the scoresheet.
It’d be redeemable if, like in Harris and Struble’s case, his team was heavily focused on defence and didn’t score many goals, but with 3.1 goals per game on average, the Terriers were far from a trap team, and they were strong enough to win the Beanpot over the Huskies as well.
The main thing I noticed every time I watched Tuch play was a level of disengagement that made me wonder at times if he was playing injured the entire year. When his skating lane was clear and open, he would rush into it, but otherwise, there was a lot of dragging his feet throughout the season.
Away from the puck, Tuch was more often than not a liability. There were flashes of good reads and intentions, but his processing speed, especially under pressure, made him cough up more than his fair share of pucks. This is something that wouldn’t be easy to identify just by looking at his stat sheet, as the prospect was tied for the team lead in plus-minus (10), but goal differentials often paint an incomplete picture of a player’s overall impact.
When he got involved, however, Tuch was fun to watch. His straight-line speed, his heavy wrister, and the edge with which he played when he was on his game made him a decent complementary piece in the Terriers’ bottom six, with the ability to jump up on the second or first line when needed and contribute well enough.
The lack of consistency and engagement with Tuch are the main concerns, and if he can manage to be at his best as often as possible, he could very well become what he’s been for the Terriers this year at the NHL level: a complementary forward who can hold his own in a top six when needed.
Individual skill categories ratings:
Puck retrievals/receptions: C
Off-puck play: C-
Thanks for reading — tune in next week as we grade Sean Farrell, Brett Stapley and Blake Biondi’s seasons. Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to keep up with the rest of my scouting work!